Puppet diplomat charms Kiwis (c) Duncan Graham 2008
Dr Joko Susilo is a bit of a cheeky lad.
At a big event in the South Australian capital of Adelaide last year, the Indonesian dhalang (shadow puppet master) took a shot at monolingual Australia; he knew the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd was in the audience and that academics and linguists were lobbying for improved language teaching.
Susilo suddenly stopped his Indonesian commentary to announce: “This is John Howard country – I must only speak English here!”
His aside delighted the 1,000 strong audience unconcerned about an outsider commenting on local politics. And in Jakarta it may well have brought an approving nod from his more famous namesake Djoko Susilo, the outspoken and influential nationalist Indonesian politician who loves baiting Australia.
Susilo, the musician plays it close to the line but he does so with style. Certainly he’s well-placed to poke fun at the West. He married New Zealander Kathryn Knox and has fathered two Kiwis who are now teenagers. He has permanent resident status and lives in Dunedin on NZ’s South Island where he makes a living teaching Indonesian arts and working as a dhalang.
He has a doctorate in ethnomusicology and has been absent from his home in Mojopuro in Central Java long enough to know what appeals to foreigners.
Stints in Australia, England, Scotland (where he was an artist in residence at Glasgow University), Holland and the United States where he’s held visiting lectureships, have helped sharpen Susilo’s communication skills.
When you’re a little brown man with a quirky accent from a curious land far away it helps having a jokey relationship with the audience to transmit complex messages about Indonesian history and culture. Particularly to those whose only knowledge of the archipelago have been gleanings from tabloid headlines about bad, sad and mad events.
Handling this category needs care and charm. Fortunately the bubbly Susilo has these qualities in spades.
His repertoire includes hands-on interaction with the public, handing out the perfectly perforated multi-colored puppets made of buffalo hide. He lets little kids jerk the figures’ spider limbs and finger their grotesque features while he delivers snippets of knowledge. Susilo’s technique is matey, not declamatory or serious. So there’s only a sense of fun, not formal learning.
In his presentations from behind the screen where he cooks under hot lights wearing heavy Javanese clothes Susilo works references to football teams, the weather and local events into the classic Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.
Susilo knows Westerners don’t have the attention spans of the patient Javanese who are prepared to stay up nine hours to watch the full performance. So his scene selections are cut to less than two hours.
He also encourages onlookers to loosen up, to behave like Indonesians, to chat and walk around during the show, to view the puppets from either side of the screen and peer closely at the gamelan players. These are all Westerners drawn from Victoria University’s School of Music, apart from leader Budi Putra who works for the Indonesian Embassy promoting culture.
Budi, 38, who also comes from Central Java, won the job through his ability to play every gamelan instrument and an egalitarian approach to the arts. He arrived in Wellington in 1996, mastered English and chose to stay.
“New Zealanders know little about Indonesia though their interest is strong,” said Susilo. “In Australia, where they understand more about their northern neighbor, enthusiasm is huge.
“In NZ I spend time explaining my country, culture and music. I do that at the start of the performance, in the middle and at the end. I want people to relax and enjoy, for the music of the gamelan is just like heaven.” Then he added with a chuckle: “Well, it is when it’s played well.”
But he wasn’t referring to the bule gongers who have earned their credits by performing in Indonesia, including the cultural heartland of Yogyakarta. During a three-week tour last year they astonished locals with their dexterity and knowledge of Javanese arts and language.
There are two gamelan orchestras in Wellington, one Javanese the other Balinese. Also among the foreign players is Susan Pratt Walton, a pesinden – the woman singer in a Javanese gamelan. She’s from the University of Michigan.
Susilo came to NZ in 1993 when he was 30 for further study after graduating from the Indonesian Arts Academy of Surakarta, though his introduction to the ancient arts started at his birth. Typically his father wasn’t there for the event – he was out of town working as a dhalang, the job that’s been in the family for ten generations.
“When I was ten my mother made a booking for my dad to perform. However she favored the modern seven-day week calendar,” he said. “My traditionalist father used the Javanese five-day week calendar for his arrangements. Not surprisingly there was a double booking. So I had to fill in.”
Another factor in Susilo’s rapport with onlookers is his undoubted competence. Westerners normally feel uncomfortable about peering behind the scenes while a formal performance of any type is underway, but given an invite curiosity usually wins, at least with the kids.
Seeing a dexterous dhalang work a collection of more than 100 whirling puppets, flashing them across the screen, dodging and receiving arrows and spears, spinning them up and down while singing the story and adding sound effects redefines multi-tasking.
In the competition for entertainment interest wayang kulit is seriously handicapped when measured against cinema’s special effects and computer games’ electronic gizmos. You can’t miss the sticks and strings, the manipulation is obvious. Because there’s no sleight of hand watchers have to exercise their imagination.
To keep the shadow puppet arts alive Susilo has composed modern plays for overseas audiences – Wayang Skotlandia in Scotland, Ubu Bush Pig in Tasmania and Karetao Puppet Aotearoa in NZ using Maori tales.
This last production was developed despite early opposition from nationalists who argued that only Maori could work on traditional stories. But jolly Susilo looks and sounds nothing like a cultural colonialist out to plunder other people’s heritage, and he says his work now enjoys Maori support.
In a country where inter-cultural relations can sometimes rub raw on such issues, that’s no minor achievement for Indonesia’s arts diplomat.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 April 2008)